Adornment as Survival

The Painted House

In the edge of the sleepy border town of Shlomi, there is a run-down neighbourhood of subsidized housing whose appearances are as yawn inducing as ever. You pass by a synagogue down an abandoned alley, courtyards with neglected gardens, and walk a few stapes up the mouldy staircases, and then there is a gate to an otherworldly temple. Even before the door is opened for you, you know you're stepping into a different time-space zone. It is decorated with intricate designs, resembling an African weaving patterns.

The moment you step inside, the colours shout at you from all directions. Very striking earthy and almost primary colours, reminiscent of African art and perhaps also with some Mexican association (if it weren't for the very sparse use of azure colours). There is also an overpowering scent of highly-perfumed floor cleaner. There is no place for the eye to rest or think of anything else but what the artist intended to create here. A magnetic energy both suffocates you and transports you into the inner corridors and innermost secret chambers of her life, and death.

The Painted House

The foyer is tiny, and packed with portraits and collages of the artists superimposed over newspaper clippings. Before you realize where you are, you're already in the kitchen, of which the only homey remnants are the aluminum pots still stashed away in the cabinets. But in this context they seem more like witches cauldrons than anything else, and it's hard to imagine any sustenance cooked within these spirited walls. Behind it is a service balcony with broomsticks and buckets and other cleaning affair, also looking like they carry much more magical meaning than their humble appearance. It seems like not even a good idea to step closer - like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, at any moment these object may start walking towards you and drown you with bucket-water all on their own. The broomstick is also painted with zebra-like stripes, and all the pipes running through this balcony are meticulously decorated, to conceal any distracting parts of reality from the eyes of the beholder.

The Painted House + Perfume

The other rooms are just as haunting, an disturbingly intimate - with beds laid with the same blankets and bedsheets of the artist who dwelled her, and with the artist's personal belonging in the painted closet: antique face powder, with an unrealistic peach colour of no real skin... Crusted-blood-red nail polish, hand creams, medications, and a quarter-liter Eau de Cologne that smells nothing fresh or cologne-like, but rather like a deep, rich ambreine perfume, in the vein of Shalimar: some bright bergamot drowned in a syrupy concoction redolent of vanilla, castoreum and patchouli. The legendary perfume that Afia's children remember her by is probably sitting right in front of me.

The Painted House
This is The Paineted House of the late artist Afia Zekharya. You don't need to know her life story to appreciate the power of her art and the magic of this space where she lived and ultimately died. But it sure helps to understand why she did what she did: spent the last 15 years of her life covering everything inside this apartment with art. Also, similarly to other female artist that focus on their internal storytelling, and although her art is immensely biographic, it is more figurative and symbolic, and less elaborate than Frida Kahlo for example, whose art also portrays the deep suffering - although infused with joy - she experienced in life.

There is more unknown about Afia's life story than there is know, party because she spoke only Arabic, and therefore hasn't communicated much with her neihbours. But also because her family keeps its privacy, and does not like to be interviews about here. Whether it is to protect her memory or because they are media shy, we will never know. But we do know she was born in Southern Yemen, got married off at a young age (probably 10), and has immigrated to Israel with her husband, a traditional Yemeni jewellery artist (if you haven't seen Yemeni silver jewellery - it is very ornate, and requires much skill), and their six children (although according to what I've heard she's given birth 15 times - so most of the children did not survive). They were first settled in a big Arabic house in the abandoned village of Al-Bassa, whose inhabitants fled during the War of Independence/AKA The Naqba in 1948. The village was mostly ruined and on top of it was built the moshav Betzet, and parts of the industrialized section of the new Israeli border town of Shlomi. 

The Painted House

It was a big house with garden and yard and Afia had dedicated her life to raising her children, cooking traditional Yemeni food in a taboon (a specialty clay wood stove for baking flatbreads) that was built in the house - a lifestyle I imagine was still somewhat familiar to what she had in Yemen, despite being displaced in a new foreign country. But before each day has began, she would take great care adorning herself: painting her fingernails with nail polish, wearing Yemeni regalia and jewellery and dousing herself with her signature perfume - an Oriental concoction that is forever engrained in her children's and grandchildren's memory. Perhaps this was her only pathway for self-expression, because Afia was forbidden by her husband to pursue her true passion for painting - something that according to a rare interview from 1994, she was very good at and was even recognized for while living in Yemen. According to her story, she was so gifted and her art so loved that she was especially commissioned to paint a king's palace in her youth.

The Painted House

But sometime in  her old age of 80, after all her children left home, and her husband already among the dead - Afia was displaced again. This time because the town of Shlomi needed the land where she lived to expand the industrial compounds. Without knowing the language, she was signing a lease that robbed her of her house, and instead was provided with a claustrophobic rental space in the Amidar neighbourhood of Shlomi. No garden, no chickens, no taboon to bake her bread. Instead of using the sun balcony to keep contact with the world, Afia shut herself in and in secret, with cheap paint, began telling her story that was locked inside her all these years, on every surface of the house. Including all the walls, the frosted-glass window panels of the sun-balcony, the screens that keep away mosquitoes, the cupboards, closets and even the toilet bowl. Then the floors, (all the parts that were not covered by carpets, so now that the carpets were removed, you can see some bare floor). And finally, despite her short height, painted the ceiling. To overcome her height obstacle, she placed a chair atop a table and methodically decorated the entire ceiling in each and every room in the apartment. She was almost done painting the last square meter of the ceiling when she fell and injured herself so badly she had to be hospitalized.  

The Painted House

But that injury did not stop her creativity. She now stocked up on multiple dolls from the souk, created Yemeni regalia to cover their bare plastic skin, and painted their faces with traditional Yemeni -style "makeup" - adorning their eyes with blue and black frames, painting their lips a bright red and adding henna-like decorations for their skull-like yellow-painted faces. Like the pattern on the walls, all the faces replicate each other, and all replicate Afia's face, which she also painted, reigning on her kingdom of painted dolls. As if frozen in time in their childhood, the part in life which Afia was never really able to live to its fullest. They're stuck in that moment in time, the night of there Henna ceremony, their eyebrows and forehead smeared with Z'bad - a seductive solid perfume made of civet paste, camphor and spices. 

The Painted House
The dolls look all alike: their seamless baby-plastic complexion suffocated by cakey makeup and weighed down by heavy metal jewellery and ornate ceremonial Yemeni-wedding embroidery. Their once innocent appearance now seems menacing. Frozen on the eve of their wedding night, like a serial-killer's victims - or perhaps like a murderess themselves.   

This art and the house struck a chord with me on many levels. First of all, because Afia Zkharya is also a Fringe Artist like my daughter Tamya (an autistic artist that paints and draws purely out of her own need to express herself, and less so from a need of an audience or recognition). My daughter's innocent portraits seem violet at times - wide-smiling "happy" girls exposing sharp teeth and claw-like nails, surrounded by dense patterns and many colours.  

Secondly, on a more personal or emotional level, being a woman and having experienced the blurring of my identity (being raised by a stepfather of Moroccan descent who hated anything to do with my European heritage, he insisted on silencing of my voice and criticizing me whenever I was singing German Lieder or Italian opera), and the general oppression of my art and creativity while growing up - especially confusing when on the surface it was nurtured and encouraged, and I was constantly praised for my "talents". Something that I believe a lot of women can relate to. As women, we are often not allowed to show the full spectrum of our emotions, not even through a socially acceptable form of art. And this is especially apparent in more traditional patriarchal societies and those still strongly dominated by that. 

The Painted House

Last but not least, on a more political level, being an Israeli all those oppressive events, such as wars and violence, and especially violence agains minority groups and women from those groups is deeply disturbing and affects me even if I wasn't an Arab-Jew or an Arab-Palestinian thrown out of my home, or having my children stollen (which happened to many Jewish women from Yemen, the Balkans and other Arab-Speaking countries) on the pretence that they were still-born. This is an affair that is only recently being acknowledged by the Israeli government - being denied as being an urban myth even though we as a collective all knew and believed the victims all along, a story that kept being told and there was no other way. This kind of pain is not something that no matter how much you try to - it cannot be erased or denied. The truth comes out because it is part of people's lives who live among us, even if it doesn't affect us directly. And this is also true for the Sixties Scoop in Canada, which is a too-obvious comparison, and has bled through all level of society, whether if we like to acknowledge it or not. Jut like a war, you can't have a whole generation scarred and lives displaced and shuttered this way without having a multi-generational effect on all of society.  

The Painted House

The fact that her art is recognized, and the Painted Palace saved from erasure, just as Afia insisted on expressing herself despite all odds, and being rented to another family is a consolation. Just like the artist has and preserved her language and her name (Israel's melting pots of the 1950s and beyond was very aggressive about morphing everyone into "Israelis" and not allowing preserving their identity and culture from abroad - beginning by forcing people to forget their mother's tongue, and change their names into Hebrew names. For example, Afia, which means Health in Arabic was "Hebrewsized" into "Ofra" (which means a baby deer),  Now the art and culture division of the town of Shlomi is fundraising for preserving the house so that many more generations can experience this magical place and be touched by Afia's story and the suffering she's endured. Like Dia de los Muertos, this creation feels more like a commune with the dead. Next time I go there I want to bring a Yemeni soup as an offering, and give Afia's doll one of my cherished jars of Z'bad I received as a gift from my friend Dan, to refresh her painted face and perfume all her self-portraits. 

Practice, (Continued)

Fats Domino's Piano, Post Katrina

"One doesn't have to be good at meditation, achieve anything or look for any particular results. As with any skill, only practice leads to improvement. And improvement is not even the point. The only point is the practice"
According the Meriam-Webster's dictionary:

verb prac·tice \ˈprak-təs\

: to do something again and again in order to become better at it

: to do (something) regularly or constantly as an ordinary part of your life

: to live according to the customs and teachings of (a religion)

Further meditation on the concept of practice: it can take different roles in your life. It could be something you do over and over again towards achieving the goal of mastery. Or it can just become an integral part of your life. In the first instance (or approach, if you will), the ego can easily get in the way: "I want to be better than anyone else", it will tell you. Or: "Be as good/famous/successful as this role model". This is what would only cause you to procrastinate at best, if not completely abandon any practice at all. Make it a part of your life, integrate the practice in your daily, mundane schedule, without worrying about what everyone else will say - and your world will shift entirely. All of a sudden, instead of trying to get from point A (ignorance, or low skill level) to point B (knowledge and mastery) - your goal is to be in the present. The goal is the practice itself. Or, if you wish to attribute an even richer spiritual perspective, it's akin to the Jewish approach of "... for the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah" (Avot 4:2).

The full definition of practice (same dictionary):

transitive verb
1 a :  carry out, apply 
b :  to do or perform often, customarily, or habitually 
c :  to be professionally engaged in 

2 a :  to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient 
b :  to train by repeated exercises 

3 obsolete :  plot

Here we see that it is the action of applying the knowledge, not just talking or thinking about it, that matters. This frequent performance or repeated action is what will bring one to the level of mastery and professionalism (if that's desired), in which the action itself becomes the way of life. A life of action and doing. A creative and fertile life.

intransitive verb
1 :  to do repeated exercises for proficiency
2 :  to pursue a profession actively
3 archaic :  intrigue
4 :  to do something customarily
5 :  to take advantage of someone 

Interestingly, here's where the double-edged sword of automation is fully expressed. Practice can be a repeated action with the goal of proficiency. Like studying the moves in a dance routine until "muscle memory" is achieved. This is not a very high level of mastery, but a necessary step in the process. However, one can be easily stuck in the mechanical, technical aspect, and be paralyzed by it. I've experienced this time and again in all of the creative mediums I've been engaged in throughout my life. Once the initial novelty of the new medium has worn off, I've been often left with an overwhelming sensation of inadequacy. And I've been led to believe that the only solution for that is achieving proficiency. Now, as my recent dancing classes under different instructors have proven: it's great to do some drilling , break down some moves that are complex or challenging, in order to integrate them into your muscle memory. But ultimately, what's most important for dancing (both from the dancer and audience's perspective) is the soul. A dance without soul is lifeless, boring and an eyesore to watch. Or at best an amusing entertainment in which you can see that drilling does hammer certain dance into a body to the point that they can move without belabouring them. But that does not make it an artful or expressive thing. And it misses the point of practice entirely. Ideally, one should move from "exercising" to incorporating the practice into one's life. Rather than doing things "customarily" with a mundane, yawn-inducing attitude - integrating the practice into one's life, and give it the space and time it needs to become soulful, to become an art.


1 :  the act of doing something again and again in order to learn or improve 
2 :  a regular event at which something is done again and again to increase skill 
3 :  actual performance :  use 
4 :  a usual way of doing something 
5 :  continuous work in a profession 

Throughout my childhood, I've been studying music - my piano lessons began in elementary school, even though I had no piano at home. I practiced wherever there was a piano and whenever I had time (i.e.: lunch breaks), at the underground bomb shelter at school, at our neighbour's homes all over the village, and finally at my own home once my parents finally realized I was serious enough to invest in a piano (not to mention make room for it in a very tiny home).

By high school I shifted my focus on classical singing, which was a most profound way of self-expression, with no restrictive intermediaries such as keyboards and piano room scheduling. I could sing anywhere, but preferably where there was an empty space with decent acoustics and no one listening. Of course I will have my weekly lessons where I had to perform in front of my teacher, and there was choir practice and what not. But the most ideal situation was somewhere where the only witnesses would be blind bats and deaf lizards. While I had my fair share of limelight glamour in those highs school days, in a way having an audience was actually detrimental to my self-expression. Especially if the audience was judgemental or critical. Such environment would immediately choke my "instrument". Looking back at those times, I now know that it was precisely those times of practice where the best things were happening. Not everyone is cut to be a performance artists, but that does not mean that when they sing or play or dance at the private of their own home, they are not creating art.

Contrary to the definition of art as we were taught it in the advanced music classes in high school - I do not believe that art is about the audience at all. Art is an internal process that takes place in the creator's psyche, and often in private - in a studio, or in nature, or just at a writer's bedside where they write their day's thought. The audience is only privy to the finished result, which, granted, can be beautiful. But as beautiful and interesting as it may be - it pales in comparison to the process of creation. When you hear an opera singer performing a polished aria in a concert hall - you hear only the result of hours and hours of practice. Hours of many different phases, including just straight forward solfège, diction and technical drilling of the music from one hand; and spilling out raw emotions, perhaps even bursting into real tears and singing in a choked-up voice - that are usually deemed inappropriate to deliver for a larger audience. But they are all part

Once again, we see that the importance of practice is in the act itself. In other words: "Just do it". Don't say that you want to paint, draw or write, run, dance or swim - or whichever practice your soul is hungering for. There is a reason why you're attracted to a certain discipline or another. It's your calling. Listen to it. Act on it. Practice it. Just do it!


Practicing for the recital

“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.”- Stephen McCranie 

Glancing at the dictionary definitions of the word "Practice" is quite insightful. Practice isn't merely a preparation, rehearsal for the "real thing". Practice IS the real thing. You've got to "practice what you preach" and only by repetition of your skill (practicing it, over and over again), will you be able to actively pursue a profession, and "practice" it or open your "practice".

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés talks about practice in her book "The Creative Fire: Myths and Stories on the Cycles of Creativity". She reveals to the readers the dirty secret of many creative people: she has written thousands  upon thousands of pages of stories, poems, thoughts, etc. Out of those, many should never be read by a living person. They are that horrible. But it is through those pages, that an artist practices her skills - sharpens her pencil, so to speak - and every so often, is able to create a gem - a story that will be told and retold a hundred times, published and read many more.

These reflections on creativity brought me to think about my own craft. It is one of the hardest thing to teach, yet twice a year students from all over the place gather at my studio for a week, and try their hands at the art of perfumery. I have witnessed countless blending sessions in which students got easily frustrated, or were even angry at themselves for producing something "disgusting" (although I have a  strict rule about not using such strong words in those sessions, they sometimes just come out of their mouths) or making a tiny mistake that they worried will never be fixed. As I accompany them on those little expeditions of perfume making, I can't help but remember my moments of frustration at the bench. Too much of this, or too little of that. Being hang-up on a concept or a vision, and not following what I smell. So what if the starting point was ingredient X, and now you're inclined to abandon it altogether for another exciting combination that popped along the way? This is all part of practice, part of learning - which eventually will create something beautiful that you'd like to dab on any other person on the street.

In the past couple of years, I've been immersed more deeply in the practice of movement - namely Pilates and Middle Eastern dance - both requiring hours of practice. Exercising the muscles and learning the choreography or the movements is only a small part of it. Feeling, sensing, experiencing the moves, the dance and the breath - that's the core of "practice" and of the art itself. I recalled the hours spent at the piano, going over and over a single bar in a  particular movement in a Beethoven sonata. Re-connecting with the emotions that this particular part brings; re-experieincing the sensations of the tips of my fingers on the keyboard. This takes time, which of course we eventually run out of; but it's also part of the art - whether of not there is an audience to it. The practice it not just the concert or the dance performance. It's the actual dancing, playing or singing, wherever and whenever it takes place. And thankfully int these art forms - you don't run out of materials, just grow old with them...

Which brings me to another quote by a famous cartoonist: "Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep"(Scott Adams).  For creativity to happen, one needs time, practice and a nurturing, non-judgemental environment. To produce art, all of this needs to happen as well; but then also have the editor's eye that will select which of those bursts of creativity will have a lasting meaning in the context of that particular piece of art. Which ones are relevant, which ones flow and tell a story - and which ones are best left out, either because they reveal more than needed to the story; or perhaps they belong to another.

It's a very similar process with perfume-creation, and like any creative process - it takes time, energy, work, and also will eat up materials of varying costs. You'll have to produce dozens of unacceptable stench, mediocre concoctions, and some that are perhaps great as an expression of your emotions but not really fit to expose other noses to. And there is a certain amount of cultivation that needs to take place - preparing the soil so to speak, for the creation to emerge. This can sometime take a few years, or even a lifetime (as is evident in the life story of Mrs. Mary Delaney, who created a new art form (mixed-media collages) and a massive body of work at the ripe age of 72, which is beautifully interpreted in Molly Peacock's book "The Paper Garden".

The Perfume Suite

In  the 1960's, Duke Ellington recorded The Perfume Suite he's written with Billy Strayhorn. The music was inspired by how perfume affects women's mood and self-perception. As "out there" as some commercial perfume titles may sound, there is a fundamental truth to them. Perfume can make you feel like as powerful as a god/dess, regal as a queen/king, an unleashed animal on the prowl, as naive and playful as a child... 

1st movement: Under The Balcony Seranade (Pure Love)
2nd movement: Strange Feeling (Violence)
3rd movement: Dancers in Love (Naïveté)
4th movement: Coloratura (Prima-donna)

What persona or aspect of yourself has perfume help you to access or unleash?


Lampblack by Bruno Fazzolari
Every evening before sunset, the preparations for the lightless hours commenced: father would fill the lamps with petroleum, trim the wicks and replace the spent ones; and mother would clean the soot off the fragile mouth-blown glass shields with a round bottle-brush. This job had to be done well ahead of time to ensure they are completely dry. Failure to do so would result of the glass exploding into shreds once the heat of the flame kisses the damp glass.

This is how I grew up, in the dim light to do the homework to in contrast to the blasting Mediterranean sun. Moths and fireflies will gather around the lamps and candles, often sacrificing their tiny lives by getting too close to the light... If you were too light-greedy by raised the flaming wick - the exact opposite result will be achieved: would  too much soot will collect rapidly on the glass, blocking the light and create more work for the next day...

One day technology arrived at my home village in the form of solar-power, and the petroleum lamps and all those little strange mundane details of electric-free life were almost forgotten... Until I encountered Bruno Fazzolari, a visual and perfume artist as well as an art educator - and his new perfume collection of 5 fragrances with the eponymous title. I instantly fell for two out of the five, and learned that the soot collecting on such lamps has a name, and is also the most ancient of all pigments: Lampblack.
Petroleum lamp by MrsFaraway
Petroleum lamp, a photo by MrsFaraway on Flickr.
Lampblack is not an isolated perfume - it was debuted as part of an art show at Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco, alongside a series of Exploring the relationship between art and perfume is a controversial and difficult subject (for many reasons I feel should be the topic of another post) and it's both exciting and encouraging to see an artist taking the risk and seriously pursuing the challenge.

Lampblack pigment is not simply black - but also possesses brownish or blue background hues that might show more clearly to the untrained eye after the colour fades a bit. It's a very versatile pigment - and is used to create India Ink, as well as black water colour and oil paints.

The primal, basic nature of lampblack pigment appeals to me. There is something very straight forward about it; yet also a mystery. It connects the innate need to tell a story through the ages - on cave walls or the Metro station.

Lampblack perfume encompasses that connection: it has some very prehistoric elements such as the smokiness of nagramotha (cyperus, a relative of vetiver that has an almost tar-like scent that is not unlike petroleum at its pure state); an ink-like quality that makes one think of the cold steel from which bridges are built. Strangely enough, it also reminds me of a visit to a fisher's docks in Haifa in elementary schools, when we were shown a cephalopod and the ink that comes out of it. There was a salty, metallic scent in the air of a rainy winter day, the rusty ships and wet wooden docks.

Upon application, Lampblack possesses an abstract yet familiar freshness merged with woodsy and mineral elements: sulfuric grapefruit, flint-like black pepper and woodsy sandalwood and vetiver. Quickly, a turpentine-like smokiness of nagramotha interferes with the agreeable opening, and an abstract array of molecules that bring to mind ink and minerals. Underneath it, if you listen carefully, there's a quiet jasmine note peaking through the rather angular structure, echoing the "fruity magentas" and splashes of yellow that are peaking through the buoyant spills of thick India ink in the artist's painting - but perhaps it's the other way around. Powdery benzoin mellows out the dryness of the woods, suave and absorbent like rough watercolour paper.

Lampblack perfume and the entire collection of 5 can be purchased directly from the artist's Edition webpage, or via his Etsy shop.
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